If there’s one resource Indiana has in abundance, it’s water. That abundance of water often floods Indiana’s flat farmland, making it hard for farmers to plant their crops. So, throughout Indiana’s history, farmers and state and local officials have worked tirelessly to drain the land.
They’ve buried an intricate network of porous pipes called drainage tile a few feet under their fields; dug ditches to collect the water from these pipes, and steered those ditches toward streams. Then they clear-cut stream-bank forest and straightened streams. “The whole idea is just to send the water downstream,” says Rae Schnapp, the Wabash Riverkeeper, and representative of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national rivers group.
But this single-minded clearing and ditching has done grievous harm to Indiana’s waterways, and it continues to do so. In our hurry to send water downstream, we’re also destroying important habitat, speeding manure and chemical runoff into our rivers and turning precious topsoil into harmful sediment. Case in point: Johnson County, just south of Indianapolis.
According to an EPA-funded 2003 study of the 124-square-mile Young’s Creek Watershed, which covers 40 percent of Johnson County, only two of 18 streams in the watershed were healthy enough to fully support fish and other stream life. Those two streams sit in a state fish and wildlife reserve and are lined with more than 100 feet of forests on their banks. The rest of the streams in the area had mostly been cleared of trees, straightened, and often lined with broken rock. The official responsible was the Johnson County surveyor, and what he did was entirely legal and paid for by the public.
That’s because of an archaic state law called the Indiana Drainage Code. This law states that whole watersheds can be designated “legal drains,” indicating that these creeks and streams exist entirely to drain farmland, rather than, say, nurture wildlife or provide a decent place to hunt, fish or stroll. The Indiana Drainage Code creates a drainage board in each county, staffed almost entirely by farmers, to advise the county surveyor, who’s in charge of draining land. And, within legal drains, it gives the county surveyor extraordinary powers.
“They take the trees off, straighten, and dredge,” says Gary Moody, a retired music critic in Franklin, the Johnson County seat. “You lose all the morphology, the riffles, the meanders--everything that wildlife has adapted to and uses.”
County surveyors are political appointees and need no training in engineering, hydrology, or environmental science. Their work is paid for through property tax fees and they have no obligation to compensate the landowner for any damage done.
“The surveyors have a whole lot of power and not necessarily any knowledge or responsibility about water quality,” Schnapp says.
All this is against the spirit of the federal Clean Water Act, which mandates that the nation’s streams, rivers and lakes should be fishable and swimmable. And it undermines the goals of other state agencies like the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which promote vegetated buffer strips and other conservation practices that make for clean, healthy streams. In effect, Indiana tax dollars are paying to preserve some streams and wreck others.
"Simply leaving streambanks alone would go a long way toward improving water quality in Indiana's rivers," said Jessica Dexter, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). Natural vegetation holds streambanks in place, prevents topsoil from being washed away and allows the ground to filter nutrients and chemicals out of the runoff. Requiring 'buffer strips' of natural vegetation between crop land and water bodies is one of the key recommendations in Cultivating Clean Water, ELPC's report on reducing agricultural water pollution.
To stop the damage, the Army Corps of Engineers could deny permits for ditching projects that threaten important streams and rivers. And the Indiana Drainage Code “needs to be revamped entirely,” Schnapp says.
That means requiring county surveyors to be technically competent professionals who know how to manage streams without damaging them. This change was recommended by a landmark 2007 commission on Indiana local government reform, which was chaired by former Governor Joseph E. Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.
In the long run, what’s needed are laws that reflect 21st-century values, in which stream and river conservation are as just as important as draining the land. “Water is a critical natural resource,” Schnapp says. “We need to do what we can to keep it clean—and to keep it here."